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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Oregon Voters Will Decide The Provider Tax, But What Is That?

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In January, Oregon voters will decide whether to overturn a new tax on hospitals and other health-care providers. Secretary of State Dennis Richardson's office ruled this week that opponents of the tax collected more than enough signatures to put the repeal on the ballot.

It’s now called Measure 101, and will be on ballots due January 23, 2018.

What exactly are Oregonians voting on?

Voters will decide whether to approve a tax on health insurance premiums that was included in a much larger bill during the 2017 legislative session. That bill was mostly an extension of an existing tax on hospitals. It’s been used to fund health-care for low-income Oregonians, and it’s been a popular funding strategy since it generates matching federal dollars.

This time around, the state faced a budget shortfall of more than $1 billion, so lawmakers expanded the formula include a new tax on some health insurance plans and managed care organizations, and they expanded the hospital tax. Supporters said it’s needed to ensure that health coverage continues uninterrupted for people on the Oregon Health Plan, Oregon’s version of Medicaid.

What happens if Measure 101 passes?

The tax will go into effect as lawmakers originally intended.

What happens if Measure 101 fails?

The portion of the tax that’s on the ballot will not go into effect. Supporters of the tax say it means that up to 350,000 people will lose health care. Opponents say those fears are overblown. They say rejecting the taxes will force lawmakers to get more creative and find other ways to cut costs when it comes to providing health care for low-income Oregonians.

Who is behind the effort to overturn the tax?

Three Republican state representatives: Julie Parrish of West Linn, Sal Esquivel of Medford and Cedric Hayden of Roseburg. They organized an effort to gather nearly 85,000 signatures, more than enough to force a vote.

Who wants it to stay in place?

The original bill was approved by every Democrat in the legislature. Joining the effort to convince voters to pass Measure 101 is a long list of left-leading advocacy groups, public employee unions, and some medical groups.

Why is the election in January?

Normally when opponents of a new law get enough signatures to force a vote, it goes on the next general election ballot. In this case, this would typically have appeared on the November 2018 ballot. But Democrats in the Legislature argued that if the tax was overturned, it would tear a huge hole in the state’s health care budget, which would be something they’d want to deal with as soon as possible.

The Legislature is scheduled to come into session for five weeks starting in early February. So a late-January election means lawmakers will know the fate of this tax and be able to act quickly. It’s not clear at this point what lawmakers would do in the event that the tax is rejected by voters.

Republicans in the legislature strongly objected to creating a January election. They said it would cost the state money to run a special election, and that the January date means fewer Oregonians will be paying attention since much of the campaign season will take place over the winter holidays. ?

A January special election is unusual, but not without precedent. Oregon lawmakers also set a January election date in 2010, when a pair of tax measures were referred to the ballot and ultimately approved by voters.